Reviewing James Suckling’s The Miracle of Alto Adige

On 22th of March, the Miracle of Alto Adige was released, a documentary produced by James Suckling and his son Jack about this wine region in the north of Italy. On 29th it was released for the general public on his website. I was pretty excited about this documentary and eager to see it. I’m a big fan of audiovisual productions about wine. Probably because I’m not the most avid reader there is, but also because the treshold is lower than reading a thick book. After a long day at work, I find it quite relaxing to watch a documentary or listen to a podcast. On the train for example, since I spend at least two hours per day commuting.

One of the series I really enjoyed watching, already quite a few years ago, was Jancis Robinson’s wine course. When I started getting interested in wine that was the perfect introduction for me to the subject. It was very educative and had a good mix of factual information, beautiful images of the world’s best known wine regions, and interviews with key winemakers. When I heard about James Suckling’s documentary about Alto Adige, I expected something similar. I was particularly happy to see that someone like James Suckling chose a fairly unknown region like Alto Adige. I might be wrong, but I think of him as a critic who has a preference for “big” wines, while I know Alto Adige as a wine region that’s especially known for somewhat lighter and fresh wines. Anyhow, it’s a region that doesn’t get a lot of attention, even among lovers of Italian wines, Tuscany and Piedmont still being the go to regions for many.

The documentary starts off with very impressive footage of the mountainous area. The images, shot by drones and helicopters, are really breathtaking, immediately driving home the point of the “miracle” of Alto Adige. That probably should not come as a surprise, the director of the documentary being James Orr, known for popular Hollywood movies such as Three Men and a Baby, and Sister Act 2. The scenery is the perfect introduction to the winemakers of the region, including top winemakers such as Alois Lageder and Elena Walch, but I was happy to see also a few cooperatives such a Cantina Tramin. They only get a few minutes each to talk about their experiences with wine making in the region. After all, the documentary is only 23 minutes long and that seriously limits the possibilities of what you can show. If you want to showcase 6 wineries, well then there’s not an awful lot of time left to show or tell anything else.

Unfortunately this means that you don’t get to know much about the region in general : where is it situated? what kind of wines are made there? and which grapes are used? Particularly the last question is of interest, I find, because Alto Adige is home to a few indigenous grapes such as the well-known gewürztraminer, but also less well-known, but not less interesting, grapes such as schiava and lagrein. Especially lagrein is a grape that I find interesting. It produces medium-bodied, sometimes floral, but mainly spicy, peppery red wines,  reminiscent of syrah. Alas, no word about lagrein or any wine of the region for that matter. It makes you wonder a bit about the point of this documentary. Perhaps James Suckling has a personal preference for the wines coming from Alto Adige? Well, again, you won’t find out by watching this documentary! James Suckling is not to be seen anywhere. You only hear him saying a few lines at the beginning of the documentary.

I won’t hide that I find this documentary a bit of a missed opportunity. James Suckling uses his popularity to draw the attention to a less-known wine region, such as Alto-Adige, and that’s great. But he does not use his knowledge or tasting experience to share his insights, or to let us in on a few talented but yet undiscovered wine makers for example. Nor do we really learn anything about Alto Adige. Pity…

Well, let me give you at least one lagrein to look out for then! It’s the Staves, a Lagrein Riserva of Weingut Kornell. This is a wine that is defined by its pureness, its elegance and yes, the black pepper that could lead you to northern rhone syrah. In its youth the wood can still dominate the fruit a bit, but I drank the 2012 and the wood is perfectly integrated now. I found this wine just under 30€, so quality also has its price in Alto Adige, but what you get in your glass is definitely worth the money.

IMG_1302

So, if you watch The Miracle of Alto Adige, then treat yourself with a nice peppery lagrein or a flowery schiava. They go well with the beautiful scenery.

A few Taste Bud-worthy Barberas

Barbera is probably not the sexiest grape to write about. It’s not the kind of trophy wine you see on top of wine tasting lists. And yet, it’s one of Italy’s most-planted native grapes. You can find it in many regions but it’s in Piedmont that it shines. Or should I say, tries to shine? I suppose nebbiolo will probably always be the first grape that springs to mind when you think of Piedmont. But nebbiolo and barbera are two very different grapes and produce very different wines. Nebbiolo is late ripening, while barbera is earlier ripening (still later than dolcetto though). Barbera wines are often very dark, while nebbiolo is very transparent. And barbera is low in tannins, while nebbiolo tends to produce very robust and tannic wines. The only thing they have in common is the high acidity. So all in all, despite the fact they are grown in the same area, there is very little common ground.

The reason why I find barbera interesting, however, is because it occupies a place where you don’t find many other grapes. Just think of the usual suspects in red : cabernet sauvignon or franc, merlot, syrah, grenache. Or popular Italian grapes, such as sangiovese, nebbiolo, and montepulciano. None of them really has the same characteristics as barbera. Barbera’s ripe but juicy black cherries, its freshness and virtual absence of tannins make barbera worth investigating. On top of that, barberas are normally not too expensive and can be enjoyed while young. The acidity of the grape is also a grateful partner for tomato based sauces. Think bolognese or puttanesca sauces with pasta. For me that’s comfort food with comfort wine. Perfect for those evenings when you want to treat yourself with a nice meal without having to spend hours in the kitchen…

I focused a bit on barbera in the past few months to explore the grape. In general I found that I prefer the Barbera d’Asti over the Barbera d’Alba. In Alba we are in Barolo territory, so it’s nebbiolo that is in the spotlight here. It’s therefore no wonder that wineries choose to use their best vineyards for nebbiolo, as Barolo can be sold at much higher prices than any barbera. In Asti things are different, because barbera does not have to share the attention with nebbiolo. In general I found that Barbera d’Asti is a bit more full-bodied and with more pronounced acidity than Barbera d’Alba, the latter being a bit warmer, rounder. Of course it’s difficult to generalise not having tasted dozens of barberas from Alba, but the Albas I had were not from obscure unknown wineries, so I suppose they were representive for Alba.

The second conclusion I draw from my experience is that barbera is a winemaker’s grape. Despite my feeling that barberas are best when they are juicy and fresh, some were very modern, with very strong wood aromas, obviously more geared towards an international palate. Those are not bad wines per se, but they loose their unique selling proposition. However, the grape allows it, contrary to  terroir grapes such as nebbiolo or pinot noir, which need very cautious extraction and use of wood.

So here’s a few barbera’s I can recommend…

If you’re looking for good, textbook barbera :

Tre Roveri 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Pico Maccario

IMG_1261

The nose is loaded with ripe dark cherries, yet at the same time it has a spicy freshness. The fruit is evolving towards dried fruit, showing a bit of evolution. The wine is rather full-bodied, but has the typical barbera acidity that keeps this wine fresh, nicely covering the 14% alcohol. Actually, this wine was best on day two, showing more elegance and perfect balance. So no hurry here.

If you want to show off :

Vigna Scarrone 2012 Barbera d’Alba, Vietti

Beautiful, well integrated nose with cherries and a whiff of  chocolate. Elegant and complex, with multiple layers and very long finale! No doubt that barbera transcends its peers here, but it also costs more than 30€. That’s a price point where the competition with premium wines from other grapes starts getting really tough. I know that that is comparing apples and oranges. But in the end, isn’t that what everyone does? Nevertheless, great effort.

Nizza 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza, Dacapo

dacapo

Picture courtesy of the Associazione dei Produttori del Nizza

This is a barbera from the subzone of Nizza which was in 2011 still a part of the denominazione of Barbera d’Asti, but exists separately as DOCG Nizza since 2014. Before that barbera could still be complemented by 10% other grapes. Now it is 100% barbera.

The wine is a bit evolved and the nose has become a nice bouquet where everything has blended beautifully together. The morello cherries stand out, together with a bit of coffee. The ripe fruit is balanced by a razorsharp acidity that might be over the top for some, but I like it. I had it with ragu alla bolognese and that went very well. But mind you, this is more than just a simple spaghetti wine!

If you’re looking for a good price quality ratio :

Soliter 2016, Barbera d’Asti, Pescaja

IMG_0457

This is a barbera that can be found around 10€ and it gives very good value for money. It’s a modern barbera, the wood is still very noticeable, but then again it’s also a very young wine. Beautiful ripe cherries as well and a hint of black pepper. This is a very smooth wine that makes you grab the bottle as soon as your glass is empty. Dangerous stuff!

Piova 2014, Barbera d’Asti, La Montagnetta

Another pleasant easy-drinking barbera at around 10€. Graphite, black cherries, chocolate, and a hint of rose. Quite ripe and round, and the wood is very present. Good and lively acidity that give this wine freshness. Very modern style, but pleasant wine.

So these a couple of barberas that I liked. I did not post all the barberas I tasted here in order to avoid a too lenghthy post, but I started using Vivino to post my tasting notes there, so if you’re interested in the other barberas I tried, you can find them there if you go to my profile.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

Riesling with Asian food – an all-time favorite

It’s classic stuff… Riesling with Asian food. If you’re a bit of a foodie, then you surely know that Riesling is an often recommended companion for Asian dishes that are built around sweet and sour contrasts. Riesling basically has very similar characteristics : often you’ll find pine apple, candied lemon, peach, and honey if it’s sweet or evolved. And of course that magnificent acidity that makes that Riesling hardly ever comes across as flat or plump, no matter how sweet the wine is… When the dish has more spicy flavours coming from cardamom, cloves, cumin,… then muscat or gewürztraminer will also be a very good match.

Today I prepared Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian version of a Chinese classic dish : Black pepper tofu. This is one of our favorites here. But mind you, this is an extreme dish, in every possible way! In his recipe, Ottolenghi uses 8 chillies, 12 garlic cloves, three table spoons of ginger, and 5 (!) table spoons of crushed black pepper. It made me laugh when I read his version is already a milder version than the original… I can have a bit of pepper and chili, but I toned things down another notch or two, bringing the quantities down to 4 chillies, 6 garlic cloves and a few whiffs of pepper. Believe me, I found that hot enough.

IMG_1251

There’s a funny anecdote to this dish. You’re supposed to dust the tofu with corn flour to make it a bit crusty when you fry it. I had corn flour, but it was yellow corn flour to make polenta. That’s a much rougher version than the white corn flour, which is so fine you can hardly distinguish a single grain. On the picture above you can clearly see the corn flour I used. Well, this sure gives a crunchy coating! But we actually liked it. By now I’ve prepared this dish quite a few times, and I’ve tried both white corn flour and yellow corn flour. We actually prefer the yellow corn flour as it adds structure to the dish, which is interesting.

The wine we drank with it was a Riesling of Domaine Meyer-Fonné, a winery in the Alsace, France. It was the Pfoeller 2012. That’s a “lieux-dit”, a single vineyard coming from a specific place with the name Pfoeller.  On the website they describe the wine as follows : “The palate has a clean attack, distinguished, and an athletic acidity. As a slowly developing wine this is a riesling without compromise for the enlightened connoisseur.” Well, I can confirm that this wine has an “athletic” acidity (what a nice description, don’t you think?), but as is so often the case with Riesling, the acidity is not disturbing at all. This is a mouthwatering wine, very elegant, racy, complex. I also love the minerality in the nose, and there’s a hint of honey suckle as well. It’s true that this wine is no where near the point that it needs to be drunk. This wine will still develop for many years to come and will still get better, probably developing more mellow flavors alongside the racy acidity.

IMG_1254

The glass is empty and so is the bottle!

The combination worked really well. This black pepper tofu dish was very rich, and the riesling was a refreshing break in between the chili-loaded tofu. If you decide to make this dish and use the original amount of chili and black pepper, then by all means do not hesitate to take a riesling that’s slightly sweet, such as a Mosel Kabinett. It’s wrong to think that such wines are dessert wines. The sweeter versions, think of Spätlese, are indeed good partners for a fruit dessert. But a Kabinett can perfectly be paired with hot dishes and will help not to burn your tongue with the chili and pepper…

If you try this dish out, let me know how that went. Especially if you go for the hot version 🙂

 

 

 

Fish and Tea, please!

The end of my Tournée Minérale, or Dry February is in sight! Meanwhile, I’ve been experimenting further with food and tea pairings. I read that green tea pairs well with fish, especially salmon. So I put that to the test. The green tea I had was regular Twinings green tea. I wanted to have pure green tea to be able to really appreciate how it works together with the food.

IMG_1244

Continue reading “Fish and Tea, please!”

Food and tea (!) pairing

Day two of my Tournée Minérale, aka Dry January in February.

During the week I spend quite some time thinking about what I will prepare in the weekend (when I have more time) and, of course, which wine we will have with it. I enjoy those moments looking for interesting recipes and the wine that will fit with it. I can sincerely call those meals the highlights of my week. And when the food wine pairing really works out, when the chemistry works, when the sum is greater than the parts… then I am profoundly happy! I suppose football fans will experience similarly intense feelings when their team scores against their arch rival, or music fans when they are at a concert of their favorite band. It’s all about having a special moment and sharing it with your loved ones. Continue reading “Food and tea (!) pairing”

Dry January in February

In many countries there is Dry January. In Belgium there is “Tournée Minérale”, and it’s in February. Why not in January? Because we don’t want to miss out on all the New Year’s receptions of course… Anyway, I decided to give it a try. Some see this as a hype. But I’m just curious. I want to find out what the effects are, if any, of not drinking alcohol for a month. In the end, alcohol is a harmful substance for your body. So I’m curious if I will see any differences.

It will not be easy, though! If wine is your passion, then not drinking it for a month is quite a daunting perspective. Not to mention the occasions where having a beer or a glass of wine seems to be the most obvious thing, like at a party or when you’re meeting up with friends in a bar…

Another reason why some people don’t do this, is the risk that will you overcompensate when the month is over. I think that is indeed something to be mindful about. But I’ve found a solution for that! Instead of compensating in terms of quantities, I will just compensate by treating myself with a top bottle. That immediately gives me something to look forward to. And since I won’t have spent any money on wine for a whole month, I might as well spend it on a special bottle in March then.

In the meantime, I resorted to this :

IMG_1216

I can’t remember the last time I tasted alcohol-free beer. So I was actually curious to try this! And it’s not that bad actually… The end is a bit sweet, but for the rest, it’s so much like normal beer that it actually feels like I’m cheating already on day one… So hey, maybe this will not be that bad after all. It’ll be fun! Yay!